Black Lives Matter protesters march past the courthouse in Auburn on Thursday evening. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON – Recent Black Lives Matter protests in the area may further the spread of COVID-19 among the community’s already hard-hit new Mainer population, according to a Lewiston-based health group.

Abdulkerim Said, executive director of the New Mainers Public Health Initiative, was at the Black Lives Matter protest Friday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“It’s so scary” to see many people in close quarters, often touching and sometimes not wearing masks, said Abdulkerim Said, executive director of the New Mainers Public Health Initiative, a Lewiston-based effort to empower and inform the immigrant community about preventative health measures.

Said said Friday he fears there could be more new cases among the immigrant community in Lewiston and Auburn during the next couple of weeks because the disease is so infectious.

Many of the marchers are rooted in the New Mainers community, including large numbers of Somali-Americans who have moved to the area during the last two decades.

The potential health risk from protesting in cities across America is serious enough that Robert Redfield, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a U.S. House subcommittee Thursday there is “a potential, unfortunately, for this to be a seeding event” that could spread COVID-19.

Redfield told members of Congress that anyone who attends rallies in areas where the outbreak is not yet controlled should consider getting tested.

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“The way to minimize it is to have each individual recognize it’s to the advantage of them to protect their loved ones,” he said, and to tell them, “‘Hey, I was out. I need to go get tested.’ You know, in three, five, seven days, go get tested. Make sure you’re not infected.”

Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDCP photo 

At the trio of rallies in Lewiston this week, organizers and others urged demonstrators to wear face coverings. Some people were handing them out to those who lacked one.

Despite the effort, there were no shortage of hugs and handshakes among the mostly younger crowd at the protests, many of whom hadn’t seen each other in weeks because of social distancing and isolation urged by officials to limit the spread of the deadly new coronavirus.

Plus, Said said, “people were very close to each other” as they walked the streets of both cities together calling for reform in the wake of last week’s murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota.

Those who marched generally understood there was a risk, but one they found acceptable.

Dr. Tom Frieden, who led the U.S. CDC during the Ebola outbreak, said on Twitter this week that the risks involved in protests are minimal compared to the loss of trust and engagement that’s needed to control infectious diseases.

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“The threat to COVID control from protesting outside is tiny compared to the threat to COVID control created when governments act in ways that lose community trust,” he wrote. “People can protest peacefully and work together to stop COVID. Violence harms public health.”

Well before the recent protests, new Mainers were already suffering disproportionately from COVID-19.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said a month ago that minorities were getting hit hard by the disease because they often lack access to health care and work in positions that put them at risk of exposure.

Said said those working in nursing homes and other health care facilities have sometimes been exposed, come home without symptoms and unknowingly spread COVID-19 to family and friends.

“We are in the front line,” he said, with numbers that are shocking.

Data from the Maine CDC shows that black Mainers are far more likely to get the disease than whites. It also shows that Lewiston has among the highest cases per capita of any municipality in the state.

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Said said much of the problem in Lewiston is concentrated among new Mainers, especially in the core of the city.

From his vantage point, he said, it appears the disease is spreading house-to-house out of control.

Shah said at a recent briefing that when there are many people in a smaller space, often the case in downtown apartments, the likelihood of household transmission rises.

Said said part of the problem is that efforts to trace the contacts of those who test positive for COVID-19 are too slow and too limited. There isn’t anywhere near enough active testing for those with possible exposure, he said.

For example, he said, one worker at a downtown bakery who could have been tested and isolated quickly wasn’t traced until at least four days later, after he’d sat with a friend, who also got it.

It’s a cycle that has repeated itself through many of the dense housing units in Lewiston’s urban core, Said said.

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“I don’t know how we can catch up,” he said.

Said said the state needs to ramp up its testing and tracing.

Jackie Farwell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the state has been working with community leaders, health care providers and others in Lewiston and Portland to try to address issues within the minority community.

She said the department has “contracted with local agencies to ensure that individuals who need to self-isolate or quarantine have access to social supports — including food, psychological and emotional first aid, case management and various other supports as necessary — and information about COVID-19 that’s linguistically and culturally appropriate.”

Said said his Lewiston-based organization has a community health care worker who works with new Mainers, and is trusted by them, who could be tapped to help speed up the tracing efforts aimed at isolating those carrying the virus.

So far, though, “we haven’t seen anything” about doing so.

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Shah has mentioned that epidemiologists investigating outbreaks have had to rely on medical translators to overcome language barriers and the “difficult socioeconomic situation” of many workers.

He said the CDC is working to ensure there is “culturally competent, culturally aware contact tracing” — because it’s important that “we’ve got folks who can communicate” with people from every background.

The CDC director also said that as a result of talks with new Mainers in Lewiston and Portland, “we’ve worked with area hotels to strike contracts with them so that individuals who don’t feel that they can isolate without potentially exposing other members of their family, can be offered a place to isolate safely.”

Farwell said her department is “supporting MaineHousing’s effort to establish a local option for temporary housing for people affected by COVID-19, though area individuals who test positive currently have access to temporary housing options in Augusta and Portland.”

She said, though, that “statewide, we have more work to do to address these health disparities and are coordinating across state government on our response, including through the Governor’s Coronavirus Response Team. While the social supports to help people self-isolate or quarantine are time limited, we expect the stakeholder engagement to continue as long as necessary to ensure these disparities are addressed.”

With a serious push, Said said, he thinks the spread can be halted.

The Maine CDC can catch up “and stop the virus from spreading in the community,” Said said, but it’s going to take greater efforts than he’s seen so far.


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